A guest blog by Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Director of the UoN Biodiscovery Institute, Chris Denning.
It’s over two years since I published the blog below describing my journey with mental health challenges. I contemplated the idea nearly four years ago, but needed a year to pluck up the courage and another three months to write.
In the weeks after launching via email and social media in Jan 2020, over 250 people, engaged with me in positive ways, often opening up about their own challenges. Such a broad demographic – mental health issues don’t care about age, gender, ethnicity or title.
Students offered some of the kindest words… “By sharing your story, you have given me permission to be open about my own mental health issues”… or… “Seeing that the Director of a large institute has not been held back in their career due to mental health issues has given me hope”… or… “Having read your blog, I sought professional help – you saved my life”. These words still bring a lump to my throat.
Openness has created a two-way support network; wonderful colleagues from PhD to Prof regularly ask how I’m doing, and I reciprocate. Other support comes via the mental ‘tools’ I learned from counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy (all details below), and continuous antidepressant medication (sertraline, 150mg daily for ~three years). I feel mentally strong now, the best in many years.
Ironically, being open about the darkest times in my life led to the proudest point in my career. Long story short, the blog precipitated a series of unexpected events that led me to become Academic Lead and Co-founder of the UoN Covid Asymptomatic Testing Service. It was inspiring to work with an amazing team of people, who made such a difference at the most difficult of times. Life really is full of strange twists and turns…!
I hope you find the blog supportive. If it resonates with you, please do explore the resources, which may help with your journey to better wellness and a brighter future.
Keep safe and well
Chris Denning, May 2022 (Professor of Stem Cell Biology; Director of the UoN Biodiscovery Institute)
Blog post - first published on Monday 6 January 2020
First of all… I’d like to wish you a happy New Year..! Hopefully, you’re refreshed and relaxed.
Unusually, I have no post-holiday blues. This is a near miracle for me. A big part of this is because I’m genuinely excited about what we can achieve together in our expanded Biodiscovery Institute.
But first, to this email. Well, more of a blog.
It’s quite long. It’s also very personal and, I think, important. So, please humour me and read on.
You might think it’s important too.
To set the scene, this insightful quote comes from Mental Health Awareness UK. It strikes a chord with me:
You can sound confident and have anxiety.
You can look healthy but feel like shit.
You can look happy but be miserable inside.
You can be good looking and feel ugly.
So be kind; every person is fighting a battle you know nothing about
By the end, hopefully you’ll understand my relationship with mental health issues, why it matters to me, and how I honestly believe I turned my experience with depression and anxiety into a strength rather than a weakness.
This is why I’m now ready to be open. To start a conversation about this difficult topic.
Maybe some of my story will resonate with you. And, just perhaps, reading it might give you the courage to face any personal demons and seek the help you need from family, friends, colleagues or healthcare professionals.
Or, maybe it will stir you into helping someone who you think might be struggling. In this regard, since taking the Directorship role about a year ago, I’ve lost count of the number of people in the Biodiscovery Institute and university who might be at risk of poor mental health or are already there… I feel privileged they confided in me.
But it also concerns me, and is the impetus for trying to make change for the better.
If you’re interested, I’ve put a heap of resources and support organisations at the end. There are others. But I’ve added those I found useful or thought might be helpful. All were provided by my doctor or counsellors.
Being the start of 2020 and all, it seemed timely to write this. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions because I break them.
But not this time.
So here it is… my resolution…
I want to…… Foster an environment in the Biodiscovery Institute where mental health issues can be talked about openly in a non-judgemental way, without fear or prejudice, so that support networks exist for those who need them when, or if, they are ready.
My take on it…?
Well, 1,000 people occupy the Biodiscovery Institute and the now conjoined Boots Science Building. We share a common passion: To use, or support, scientific endeavour to shape the future of health and biotechnology for the greater good.
But here’s the thing.
Current stats say one in four people, i.e. 250 of us, will have some form of mental health issue. That means, after science, the trait we are next most likely to have in common with each other relates to mental health.
No wonder I’ve lost count of the number of people who might be at risk…
And yet, mental health still attracts stigma… is considered taboo… or viewed too often as an illness of the weak.
Surely, this out dated view needs to be superseded?
Here’s the truth. Mental health issues are usually due to chemical imbalances in the brain. These can be often be corrected with the right combination of personalised therapies.
Not a million miles away from the lifestyle changes, understanding and treatment needed for diabetes, asthma, physical injury and so on.
Wouldn’t you agree?
These illnesses are discussed openly. Without the baggage that comes with mental health.
So, here’s my story.
Well, a synopsis. Not an autobiography – that would bore you to tears..! If you want REALLY interesting autobiographies, try David Attenborough, Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson or the para-Olympian, Karen Darke. Truly inspirational.
I digress. Bad habit. Sorry.
Before starting, a couple of things.
First, I’d like to thank a few colleagues (no names here…) for their professional and compassionate feedback to the ‘beta versions’ of this blog. Also, my wife, Lorraine, for her continuous support.
Second, you may find my story challenging and upsetting. So, it needs to be your choice to read it.
If you’d prefer not to, then please carrying on reading below – this allows you to skip the parts that might be most upsetting.
Whatever you choose – skip, start or stop – please look through the ‘Resources’ section at the end. You might find something useful in there.
There are risks of being open. I know that. But I hope these are outweighed immeasurably by the benefits to our broader community.
So, decision time.
Read on below to miss out the bits that might be upsetting.
Or if you want to read the complete story, click here [Content note: this text contains discussions of suicide]
OK, let’s get going.
I don’t quite know when I first became depressed and anxious. It kind of crept up on me, probably from childhood. What I do know is that in 2012 I felt like my world was imploding through a perfect storm of challenges at home, with family, at work and personally, with the icing on the cake being the death of my mum after a three-year battle with cancer. My dad had died years before, when I was 28 years old, of a heart attack, just minutes after Lorraine and I arrived home as newly-weds from our honeymoon. With both my parents gone when I was 39, it was the end of an era for me.
I was struggling. Big time.
And yet I was in denial. No, I’m ‘fine’.
Or so I was telling myself and others.
Lorraine knew otherwise. But she couldn’t talk me round. My denial was too strong. I needed to realise myself.
My wake-up call appeared as I was writing my suicide letter.
The organised, scientific bit of my brain kicked in. The checklist was completed. Location. Method. ‘Tools’. Personal affairs. And now, suicide note was being completed. All ready to go.
It was at that moment, standing on the precipice of ‘readiness’, where I found freedom in its purest form.
And others, especially those people nearest and dearest, would at last be free of ‘mystery me’. This wasn’t a selfish act. No way... I’d be doing them a favour.
A path out from all the turmoil. For everyone.
For the first time in a long time, I was experiencing... some contentment.
Not happiness. No, it was more relief that there would be escape. There would be peace at last.
The calmness was blissful. My mind wasn’t racing. I felt relaxed.
Bizarrely, in that moment, I had much greater clarity of thought.
And there it was.
I realised there might be a different way. Maybe with the right help, I could find freedom, contentment, relief and, just perhaps, even some happiness, purpose or value.
I can’t remember my exact words to Lorraine. I found her sitting on the couch in our living room. I was brief to the effect of, “I need help. I’m going to make an appointment to see the doctor”. Or something like that.
Lorraine was relieved.
A day or two later, I was under the care of Sue Oakley, a wonderful doctor at Cripps Health Centre, at the university. Sue has moved on now – a shame, I always wanted to thank her.
I was terrified going to that first appointment. Would I be laughed at for being pathetic? Ridiculed because I didn’t have a ‘serious’ illness? Told I was a timewaster and to get a grip?
My crystal ball for future gazing proved seriously wrong. Sue was simply lovely – compassionate, caring, professional. No laughing, ridiculing or belittling.
Put simply, my worries of how Sue would react were ill founded.
Long story short. Sue calmed me and talked to me. We were going to get through this together, she said. Sue found out what was going to work best.
Everyone is different. For me, antidepressants for two years, concurrent with support from Lucy Halberstam, a fantastic professional at the University Counselling Service. It’s fair to say that Sue, Lucy and Lorraine saved my life. I was on the road to recovery.
And so it stayed for several years.
But, about 18 months ago, gradually those demons of depression and anxiety started to creep back. Where was I going in life? What was my purpose? What were my life goals? I never felt good enough in my work-, home- or personal-life to feel truly happy or elated. I lost interest in most things. Every news item, tweet or social media post got me down even more. With everything being so negative from every angle, really, what was the point in it all?
I was in trouble.
And in denial.
Then a few extra triggers cropped up during 2019 – a mixture of professional and personal challenges proved to be the tipping point. Before I knew it, I was having serious downers and bursting into tears for no apparent reason.
I caught it earlier second time round. It was easier to seek professional help.
Well, I say easier.
It’s all relative.
Four months ago, back in September 2019, my palms were drenched in sweat as I sat nervously chewing my lip until it bled waiting to be called into the GP’s surgery. Those same ‘imposter syndrome’ demons were back on my shoulders.
Wow, what a relief to meet Helen Garr. Another incredible doctor at Cripps Health Centre. Helen’s positive and engaging attitude proved that I needed to trade in my crystal ball if I was going to start seeing the future with any degree of accuracy…
Helen has particular interests in helping those with mental health issues. This includes presenting at major conferences and being the very active @wellbeinggp on Twitter. I met Helen every fortnight. She helped plan a multi-prong and holistic treatment strategy.
I was in safe hands again.
…If you’ve arrived here, you’ll be pleased to know that the toughest part of the blog is finished.
I’m on the road to recovery now. In fact, I feel the best I have done in years. And mentally stronger. But I know I need to take care of myself, and rely on others to help too. Recovery needs to be nurtured - it can be fragile, easily derailed, and must be treated with care, kindness and compassion if it is to last.
Actually, most of the time, we all need support from each other to some level.
Everyone is different, but here are a few things that worked well for me. Please do remember, if you are worried about your mental health, or someone else’s, always seek advice from a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
- Antidepressants: I’m back on these and will be for at least a year, possibly longer. These take weeks or months to work properly, so stick with the course and take exactly as prescribed by your doctor. You may be on them for a long time – no quick fixes here.
- University Counselling Service: I self-referred. Once again tremendously supportive
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): I self-referred, and am seeing a professional at Trent PTS. Other providers are listed at the end and in the attached pdf.
- Web-based tools: I regularly complete depression and anxiety assessments to keep track on how I’m doing. It took a few months, but all my scores are heading in the right direction. See below or click here for more.
- Mindfulness: I found the meditation app, ‘Calm’, is helpful in gaining perspective challenges, being more open and becoming more self-aware. Use it regularly to change your perspective. ’21 days of calm’ was a key factor in choosing to write this email.
- Book resource: Paul McGee’s, ‘How Not To Worry’, is insightful, easy to read and even humorous in places.
- In case of crisis: I have numbers for Samaritans and Shout in my phone. I haven’t used these yet, but good to have.
- Scientific studies: I’ve consented my DNA for whole genome sequencing to GLAD (Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression), a study being run from King’s College London. Just maybe this could help others in the future..?
- Exercise: I try to cycle to work every day, and walk the dog for up to an hour. Exercise causes ‘happy’ endorphins to be released. These chemical signals can help counteract depression and anxiety.
- Hobbies: I actively take time to do more photography, a true passion. I’m going on workshops ‘Winter in Slovenia’ in February and ‘Irish seabirds’ in June. More happy brain signals.
- Get out..! Once I month, I try to take time away and head to the hills with my dog and camera. Just do what suits you best; perhaps a walk around the lake on our beautiful campus at the University? Go to Wollaton Hall and Deer Park? Spending time in ‘green spaces’ is proven to be extremely beneficial for mental health.
- Nearest and dearest: Make time for them. Talk to them. Include them. My wife, Lorraine, has been on the journey with me. That’s been hard on her too. A lot of shared tears. But now we talk openly and it’s easier to have quality time together where we chat, laugh, enjoy and find contentment in the smallest of things.
- Colleagues: Being increasingly open about my mental health challenges to colleagues at work has been an overwhelmingly supportive experience. Their positive attitudes gave me the courage to write this email
- Helping others: By accepting my own mental health challenges, I hope to become a better leader, manager, colleague, worker, husband and friend. I certainly feel better equipped to identify where others are at risk of developing mental health issues, or are already experiencing them, hence guide them to professional help.
- Social media: The continual negativity grinds me down sometimes, so I make sure I get nice feeds to. Whether you like him or not, Chris Packham @lovelifechrisp has a second Twitter account just to celebrate the pleasure the natural world has to offer. No campaigns, no bad news.
- Looking to the future: Helen Garr, by GP and the @wellbeinggp on Twitter, has agreed to run an interactive session at the Biodiscovery Institute. Details to follow.
So, now you know my story… or at least some of it…
At the start, I said I was genuinely excited about the future in the Biodiscovery Institute. Sure, being Director has its challenges. But the role has given me purpose and was a key reason why I chose not to take time off during my illness. Others will have their own personal needs. Everyone is different. One size does not fit all.
I also have the pleasure of working with fantastic teams of people. My lab are a great group. The CBS-E Leads (theme, activity, academic, floor) are bringing the new building to life. More still from across the whole Institute and university are committed to making the 12th May 2020 showcase, opening and relaunch event something of which we can be proud, whilst creating impact and lasting legacy to benefit all of us and the university. I hope I’m playing a small part in helping colleagues realise their full potential – now that’s rewarding.
I think I hid all these challenges pretty well. I wonder occasionally if, at the height of my illness, anyone knew how anxious and depressed I was. Whilst, for example, chairing CBS-E information events or various CBS management meetings or the senior level retreat, particularly from June to October 2019.
All the signs were there. But apart from a few people, why should anyone have known? I didn’t talk about it. Maybe if I had have done earlier, I wouldn’t have become ill again.
In front of us, we have an unrivalled opportunity to do some amazing science. And we all know that the more we support each other, the more impressive our achievements will be.
Amazing science, congenial spirits, incredible journey. Maybe we could add support via greater openness to promote better mental health?
Surely that would make the journey even better?
Sure, few, if any of us, are professionally trained to deal with mental health issues. I’m not suggesting we try to be. But we can be open, supportive and, when needed, guide ourselves and others to the right help.
And, really, that’s all I’m suggesting.
How about we start that conversation now?
You may find those listed below of interest.
- All were provided via my doctor and/or counsellors.
- Remember, if in doubt, speak to your doctor or other healthcare professional.
Services for students:
Staff wellbeing signposts:
Cripps Health Centre:
- Access to doctors and nurses on University of Nottingham, University Park Campus. 0115 846 8888; www.unhs.co.uk
Counselling and/or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy:
Apps / websites:
Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression (GLAD):
- Study registration via www.gladstudy.org.uk If you chose to consent, the survey is detailed and will take 30-60 mins to complete. You can also call on 0207 848 1638 (FREEPHONE 0800 634 4504).